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Health risks of energy drinks

By Lilian Anekwe

Researchers are calling for more study of the possible harmful effects of drinking a lot of energy drinks. They warn that too many of these drinks could damage your health, especially when mixed with alcohol.

What do we know already?

Energy drinks have become extremely popular in recent years. These drinks are designed to make you feel more awake and alert. To create this effect, energy drinks often contain caffeine and other substances such as sugar or other sweeteners, herbal extracts such as ginkgo biloba, and amino acids (the component parts of proteins). Some can contain between 80 and 141 milligrams (mg) of caffeine – the same as in a five-ounce cup of coffee or two cans of cola.

Recently, particularly in the US, energy drinks have come under scrutiny after being linked to unexpected deaths in apparently healthy people who drank large amounts of them.

It’s important to note that these links haven’t been proved beyond doubt. But there is concern, especially as these drinks are often consumed by children, or mixed with alcohol.

So researchers reviewed the evidence to summarise what we know about energy drinks and their effect on our health.

What does the new study say?

There’s some suggestion from studies that have been done that:

  • People who drink energy drinks mixed with alcohol are three times more likely to get drunk than people who drink alcohol without energy drinks.

  • Drinking energy drinks mixed with alcohol may dull your senses and your judgement. People who drink energy drinks mixed with alcohol are more likely to believe they are able to drive safely than people who drink alcohol on its own.

  • A dose of caffeine of 3 grams is enough to be potentially lethal. To reach this possible lethal dose, a person would have to consume at least 12 highly caffeinated energy drinks within a few hours.

  • Caffeine can interact with some prescription medicines and stop them from working properly.

We still can’t be sure if energy drinks can be linked to unexpected deaths, because studies don’t always take into account that people who drink energy drinks mixed with alcohol may be more likely to take risks with their behaviour.

How reliable is the research?

This review looked at previous studies of the effects of energy drinks on our health. This type of study, which pools the results of several other studies, can often produce reliable results. But there haven’t been many good-quality studies in this area, so this review isn’t conclusive.

What does this mean for me?

The authors say that we need more information and education about safe levels of caffeine consumption, especially in young people. We don’t know enough about how caffeine affects young people’s behaviour and development.

Drinking up to 500 mg of caffeine a day (around three five-ounce cups of coffee) is generally considered safe. People with some kinds of health problems, such as heart disease or liver disease, should consider consuming less caffeine than this, or none at all.

Sources:

Howland J, Rohsenow DJ. Risks of energy drinks mixed with alcohol. Journal of the American Medical Association. Published online 19 December 2012.

Sepkowitz KA. Energy drinks and caffeine-related adverse effects. Journal of the American Medical Association. Published online 19 December 2012.

Dec 21, 2012